Village people: Michael Gambon in The Casual Vacancy.
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From Pagford to the Punjab: Sunday night rivals The Casual Vacancy and Indian Summers both fall short

J K Rowling adaptation The Casual Vacancy and Channel 4's Indian Summers lack something for our critic.

The Casual Vacancy
BBC1

Indian Summers
Channel 4
 

I can’t tell if this adaptation of J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (Sundays, 9pm) is an improvement on the novel – I haven’t read it. If it is better, as some suggest, I can only imagine how clunky the original must be. Halfway through the first episode and already worn out by all the unsubtle ways in which its writer, Sarah Phelps, was trying to signal that the Cotswold village of Pagford has an underbelly darker even than Evgeny Lebedev’s beard, I began to wonder why the director hadn’t just hired a biplane. It could have trailed a banner above Pagford’s honey-coloured roofs: “WARNING – THIS VILLAGE IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS!” Not only would this have saved a lot of time, money and acting talent; it would also have been a good deal less patronising to us, the poor, feeble, simple-minded viewers.

Pagford is a Midsomer Murders kind of place. The sun is always shining, the better that people might drive their vintage cars with the top down, and every five seconds another Great British Character Actor strides into view. Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Julian Wadham, Simon McBurney: the full repertory company is present, plus the obligatory blazers, wigs and bow ties. Turn a corner, though, and you’ll find yourself in Shameless. Here is a shop selling naughty lingerie; here, a thug pointlessly destroying a schoolboy’s bicycle; here, a weeping junkie returning home after a night in the cells. And who’s this? It’s Samantha Mollison (Keeley Hawes), the proprietor of the aforementioned lingerie store. What’s she doing? Hmm. In her kitchen, she’s shoving her considerable breasts in the face of her boring solicitor husband, Miles (Rufus Jones). “Go on!” she growls. “Grab a handful!” And then something much ruder that I will leave to your imagination for now.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy turns on the struggle for the future of Sweetlove House, a drop-in centre that caters for the needs of the residents of Pagford’s Chatsworth – sorry, I mean Fields – council estate. Samantha’s social-climbing parents-in-law, Howard (Gambon) and Shirley (McKenzie), want it to become a luxury spa: they would rather the poor stayed out of sight. Alas, there is opposition on the parish council. Previously, this was led by the do-gooding Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) but now poor Bazza is dead and the race is on to fill his seat. Who will succeed him? The hapless Miles? (At least council meetings will afford him a brief respite from Samantha’s breasts.) The dastardly Simon Price? Or the local head teacher, Colin Wall? All we know for sure at this point is that Shirley’s quilted Barbour is going to see a lot of action in the coming days, that Samantha will likely have to deploy the odd thong and that Michael Gambon will continue to shout his lines tonelessly, in the manner of a Speak & Spell machine that finds itself unaccountably stuck in a long and possibly endless run of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever.

The trailer for Indian Summers.

The Casual Vacancy is up on Sunday nights against Indian Summers, Channel 4’s expensive new series about the Raj. As awful as the former is, it’s not going to be too triumphant a slap-down. Indian Summers is beautifully acted and directed and looks intensely lush (it’s set in Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas); you could file your nails on the gently shining cheekbones of Henry Lloyd-Hughes, who plays the gorgeous, pouting Ralph Whelan, private secretary to the viceroy. Still, there’s something missing. The script by Paul Rutman (Vera, Agatha Christie’s Marple) doesn’t convince. It feels ersatz, a quality I attribute to its desperate desire to succeed as an epic and to its fiercely held but ultimately misguided conviction that it is telling us something thrillingly new about the social class of those who ruled pre-independence India (the inclusion of non-posh types is hardly a revelation; Ronald Merrick, played by Tim Pigott-Smith in The Jewel in the Crown in 1984, was not from a privileged background, either, and this was the source of his sadistic antagonism towards Hari Kumar).

Still, rather amazingly, there are another nine episodes to go. It could yet bloom. I’ll report back later, pink gin in hand. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage